Browse Category: Social Issues

The Psychology of Horror Movies

Jason Voorhees

With Halloween coming, many people’s minds are on monsters, witches, and scary movies. Just why do people love horror movies? Actually, only about 30 percent of people in the U.S. do. According to Dr. Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue University, a third of people seek out scary movies, about a third hate them, and another third could take them or leave them. Full disclosure: I am somewhere between “hate” and “meh” when it comes to horror movies. Definitely not my favorite genre. But, I am always interested in why people do what they do and like what they like.

Arousal

Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies, writes, and talks about fear, believes some love horror because fear stimulates the body’s “fight or flight” response. While the feeling of fear in a real-life dangerous scenario is unpleasant, in a controlled situation, like watching a scary movie, fight or flight causes the body to release dopamine, leading to good feelings.

Sparks states that it’s not the fear itself that makes film viewers feel good–it’s the relief after the scare is over. This fits with the “excitation transfer theory,” which states that arousal caused by one stimulus can intensify the excitation response to a different stimulus because the excitement from the first stimulus remains. In other words, the (usually unpleasant) jolt of fear a viewer feels when the bad guy axes a victim produces chemicals that arouse the body. This physical arousal continues after the shock is over, leading to heightened feelings of relief and pleasure: Just think about how people often laugh just after screaming during a horror film.

The Taboo

Horror film critic and co-producer of the movie Found Footage 3D, Scott Weinberg, has a different theory about the love of scary movies. He believes that it’s the illicit nature of horror flicks that explains their appeal. There is a thrill in doing something that you’re “not supposed to” do. The themes of horror movies are typically death, danger, paranoia, the dark side of human nature–things that are often considered taboo. Add to this the fact that many horror movies intertwine sex and sensuality with death and horror, adding to their seductive, and disturbing, nature. Just think of all the horror films in which the monster is alluring (like a vampire), or those in which the teens having sex are the most likely to be killed (e.g., Friday the Thirteenth). Many people have a desire to seek out what is forbidden, or they at least have a sense of curiosity about things that are outside the typical realm of everyday life.

Politics?

Interestingly, freelance writer and actor Hugo postulates that in the United States, horror flicks are more popular and/or more likely to be produced during Republican presidencies. He states that two of the top three horror flicks according to IMDb (Internet Movie Database) came out during Republican administrations, as did three of the top five horror films according to Rotten Tomatoes. He states that this may be because “… [Republican presidents] presided over incredible moments and turbulent times in history. These times have been consequential and sometimes scary. These conditions expose society and bring about a sense of vulnerability.” If it’s true that Republican administrations see more turbulence, perhaps these are times in which people need the controlled thrills of horror as an escape from reality, or the themes of horror reflect the anxieties that are more prevalent during these eras.

I am not sure whether the years under Republican leadership have always been more turbulent than those under Democrats. I do know that most Republicans are conservatives, and conservativism, by nature, involves a resistance to social change. This resistance often comes with fears of others and of the unknown, as well as a sense of the world as dangerous. Perhaps the same social trends that prompt the American people to elect a conservative leader make them more likely to be attracted to horror movies, which tap into our fears of being killed and tortured by a dangerous “other.”

Regardless of whether Hugo’s theory is correct, movies often do depict, directly or indirectly, what is happening in society at the time. For instance, a lot of the “invasion” movies of the 1950s and 1960s reflected fears of communism and subversives, such as the horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Filmed in 1956, it is the most popular of several similar movies (e.g., Invasion of the Saucer Men, The Brain Eaters, and Invaders from Mars) in which aliens take over the minds and bodies of the people of Earth, reflecting Cold War paranoia. Another good example of a film reflecting the political or social climate is Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed 2017 Get Out, which used both horror and black comedy to expose the myth of a post-racial United States amidst renewed media attention to and activism around racism and violence against black people.

Summing Up

So, going back to the point made at the beginning of this post that about 30 percent of Americans like scary movies, one could assume that this 30 percent is made up of thrill-seekers, or one could theorize that the Trump era is a time in which fear and paranoia are on the rise, making us more likely to seek out horror.

Whatever the explanation, horror movie season is upon us. Whether you are a horror lover, a horror hater, or indifferent to scary movies, I hope that you get some thrills this Halloween season and/or find some ways to escape from any anxieties you may be feeling about the current social and political times in which we live.

This post references the following pieces:

  1. “Republican Administrations Beget Better Horror Films” by Hugo in the online publication Medium, August 3, 2018.

  2. “The Psychology of Scary Movies” by Jason Bailey in the online publication Flavorwire, October 27, 2016.

“Blindspotting”: My Favorite Movie so far in 2018

Blindspotting movie poster

If you haven’t seen the movie Blindspotting, written by and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, I highly recommend it. I was blown away by this film, which manages to be touching, complex, and also funny while highlighting the important and timely social issues of racism, police brutality, classism, gentrification, and gun violence. Set in Oakland, California, the movie is about two lifelong friends, Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal), and the three days that could make or break Collin’s getting off of a year’s probation for a chance at a new beginning. I learned that Diggs and Casal, like the characters they play, are longtime friends, and that this was the debut feature film by director Carlos López Estrada.

Having recently visited Oakland, a city in which I lived for 5 years, I was excited to see some familiar places and scenes. I love the diversity, culture, art, music, food, and laidback feel of Oakland and grew to really love living there. I am also aware that my living in Oakland and a lot of the things I love about it are the result of gentrification, which gave me pause in thinking about my part in some of the problems highlighted in the movie.

I won’t write much about the film so as not to spoil it for anyone who plans to see it (in fact, you may not even want to watch the trailer, as it gives a lot away), but I will say that I will be thinking about the multi-layered stories and themes, as well as some powerful dream sequence scenes, for a long time.

 

The Importance of Representation in the Media: Black Panther

Black Panther film posters, photo by David Holt
Photo by David Holt.

Last month, I saw the comic book-based Afrofuturist film Black Panther, which got me to thinking about how much representation matters: Seeing positive images of people who share your gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. makes a difference in how you feel about yourself and see the world. Black Panther, a black superhero movie, got raves from viewers and critics alike for its exciting action, beautiful costumes and scenery, and fine acting, but more importantly, it broke new ground in Hollywood by featuring a black superhero. Black Panther tells the story of the first black superhero in mainstream American comics.

The emotional responses many black viewers had to the film show how powerful and necessary it is to put black heroes front and center. Since the 1960s, researchers of television and film have noted that what is shown–or not shown–in mainstream media shapes how we see the world and what we believe to be “normal.” The absence or underrepresentation of certain groups, such as African-Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos results in what media scholars call “symbolic annihilation.” George Gerbner coined this term in the 1970s to explain how the underrepresentation of certain groups in mainstream media perpetuates social inequality and undermines the legitimacy of their identities. Misrepresentation, or stereotyping, is also a sadly frequent and prevalent phenomenon in the mainstream media. Lack of representation, underrepresentation, and misrepresentation skew viewers’ understanding of the world, perpetuate racism and other -isms, and can damage the self-esteem of those who are not depicted or depicted poorly.

Previous filmmakers, with few exceptions (such as Stephen Norrington, who directed Blade, with the tituar character played by Wesley Snipes), made the black superhero a secondary character alongside white ones (such as Storm in the X-Men movies and War Machine in the Iron Man series). In contrast, Black Panther‘s director, Ryan Coogler, brought to life the story of T’Challa, a modern black superhero who is respectable, imaginative, powerful. According to Coogler, “I think the question that I’m trying to ask and answer in Black Panther is, ‘What does it truly mean to be African?'” This is a question that has long gone unexplored in mainstream film.

Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther.
Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther.

I’m not even a fan of comic books, and I thoroughly enjoyed Black Panther, both because it was a really well-done movie, but also because I recognized the cultural power and importance of the film. Hearing the voices of black directors, writers, and actors and seeing them take a central role in Hollywood is long overdue, and I hope there will be more and more movies like Black Panther being made. I also hope to see growing (positive) representation of other groups whose voices have been absent, underrepresented, or misrepresented for too long.

To read more about the history of Afrofuturism, check out this CNN article, “Afrofuturism: The Genre That Made Black Panther.”

Does Being Mentally Ill Make You More Creative?

The Sun, by Edvard Munch, 1910
“The Sun,” by Edvard Munch, 1910

A lot of people believe that it’s just a given that artists are “crazy,” that being mentally ill makes you more creative and able to “think outside of the box.” Is this true? It’s something I have wondered about many times. The short answer is probably not, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.

There have certainly been a lot of high-profile artists with mental health issues (including substance use issues): comedian Margaret Cho (who had an eating disorder, depression, and drug and alcohol addiction), painter Edvard Munch (who had depression and agoraphobia, as well as hallucinations), painter Georgia O’Keeffe (who dealt with anxiety and depression), poet Sylvia Plath (who had depression and ultimately killed herself), Vincent van Gogh (who probably had depression or bipolar disorder and, like Plath, killed himself), novelist David Foster Wallace (who dealt with depression and also killed himself), street and neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (who suffered from heroin addiction and paranoia), actress and writer Carrie Fisher (who had bipolar disorder and also was addicted to drugs and alcohol) … The list could go on and on. But, does having a mental illness or addiction play a direct role in being creative?

In a 2013 study, Kyaga and colleagues looked at a huge sample of Swedes–more than 1 million–and found that people with a mental health issue (including psychosis, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia nervosa, and completed suicide) were no more likely to work in a creative profession (defined as artistic or scientific careers) than those without a mental disorder. However, in this and previous studies, these authors did find that people with psychotic disorders or bipolar disorder were more likely to work creatively and that authors were more likely to have certain mental health problems. Interestingly, Kyaga and associates also found that the siblings of patients with autism and the first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa were significantly overrepresented in creative professions. Scott Barry Kaufman, in a blog post for Scientific American, postulates: “Could it be that the relatives inherited a watered-down version of the mental illness conducive to creativity while avoiding the aspects that are debilitating?” This makes some sense, since a number of traits associated with some mental health conditions may be more conducive to creativity, whereas full-blown mental illness typically would make a person too dysfunctional to succeed in their profession or creative pursuit.

Some researchers have found that a few of the traits associated with schizotypal personality (specifically, unusual perceptual experiences, such as “magical thinking,” visual or physical illusions, and superstitions, and impulsive nonconformity–a tendency toward unstable mood and behavior, especially around rules and social norms), often found in first-degree relatives of people with schizophrenia, fit with a creative personality. Similarly, people with an “overinclusive” way of thinking (trouble thinking precisely and selectively), who thus allow many thoughts and stimuli to enter their consciousness–a trait associated with schizotypy but also with psychosis–but who are also intelligent, with good executive functioning skills (e.g., organization, memory, and direction–traits typically absent or impaired in those with psychosis) tend to think more creatively and also have the ability to succeed in their work.

It’s a fascinating and complicated topic. I leave you with some examples of work by artists who had a mental illness. Given some of the research, one might consider these artists to be the exceptions–whether their mental illness contributed to their creative thought process or not, they were able to overcome the struggles and challenges that come with mental illness to produce amazing work.

 

"The Nile," by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983
“The Nile,” by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983

 

"Untitled (Abstraction/Portrait of Paul Strand)," by Georgia O'Keefe, 1917
“Untitled (Abstraction/Portrait of Paul Strand),” by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1917

 

"Self-Portrait," by Vincent van Gogh, 1889
“Self-Portrait,” by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

 

The Psychology of Weapons in Life and in Dance

Weapons have been on my mind lately. That may seem strange to people who know me, as I am not a weapons fanatic. I’ve never had any particular interest in guns, hunting, warfare, knives, swords, or other related subjects. I associate weapons with violence, and consider myself a pacifist; yet, as a psychologist, I am aware that violence (and thus, weaponry) is a part of human nature. I don’t pretend to believe that I don’t have some violent impulses–I just choose not to act on and cultivate them.

One of the triggers for my thoughts about violence and weaponry is the most recent school shooting on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida (and, how horrible is it that I must define it as “the most recent” one!?). I have been pondering some questions: To what degree is violence an adaptive instinct? To what degree is it a dangerous aspect of human nature to be controlled and regulated? When is violence useful, and when is it destructive? There is not always a clear answer to these questions. And, thinking in particular about school shootings and other horrific acts of violence perpetrated against innocent victims, I have been pondering the role of weapons in our world. Although the main focus of this post is not political or ideological, I will clearly state that my view is that weapons, like any tool that human beings have created that may cause harm, need to be regulated. I believe that the rights of the individual must be balanced against the common good–it’s not an either/or but a both/and. All this thinking about violence and weaponry has also got me thinking more about the psychological aspects of weapons. What impact do weapons have on how we think, feel, and behave? What do weapons symbolize to us?

I was reading an interesting article today about the “weapons effect,” a phenomenon discovered in the late 1960s by researchers Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage. They determined that the mere presence of a weapon stimulates more aggressive behavior. Additional studies on this phenomenon confirmed that it was true; for example, drivers who have a gun in their car are more likely to drive aggressively than those without one in the vehicle, and the sight of weapons increases aggression in both angry and non-angry individuals. This research obviously has some implications for individual and group behavior in the United States, where weapons, particularly guns, are plentiful.

Reading about this research also led to thoughts about what weapons symbolize. One thing that seems clear from all the recent media coverage around gun control and gun rights is that for many people, guns represent safety, individual autonomy, and control over the environment. According to Freudian psychology, guns symbolize the penis and male sexual drive. Carl Jung considered symbolism to be more contextual, rather than simply related to one’s individual psychology, and looked at collective or “universal” meanings, stating that all of humanity shares “a collective unconscious.” I don’t share this belief, as different cultures may attribute different meanings to symbols. Jung, although interested in many cultures, had a white, male, Euro-centric bias that is not universal. However, there is truth to the idea that a group of people who have grown up in a particular culture will be shaped by that culture’s values, beliefs, ideas, and imagery. Looking at guns (and weapons in general) from a Jungian perspective, one can say that they represent certain personality types, characters, or “archetypes,” such as the hero, the savior, the victor. The United States certainly embraces these archetypes as part of our collective identity.

Another reason that these ideas have been in my thoughts lately is that I have begun learning how to use a sword in belly dance. I have been dancing for a few years and recently started incorporating a sword into my dance repertoire. As I began dancing with a blade, I became curious to know more about the history of the use of swords in dance and also what unconscious meanings impact an audience watching dancers brandishing sabers. I found a fascinating history of “Oriental dance,” or belly dance, by a Mexican journalist, belly dancer, and dance teacher named Giselle Rodríguez Sánchez (the site is in Spanish with English translation available), which includes information about the use of swords. She states that while the widespread use of swords in belly dance is a relatively recent phenomenon, there are depictions of dancers using swords dating to the 1800s. For example, a work by the French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme entitled “Sabre Dance in a Café,” depicts a female dancer holding one scimitar and balancing another on her head. Rodríguez Sánchez goes on to cite a passage in the book Looking for Little Egypt by Donna Carlton that describes an Israeli dancer named Rahlo Jammele, who performed with a sword at the Moorish Palace at the Chicago international exhibition of 1893. According to the book, Jammele was the inspiration for the painting by Gérôme. Another painting of a sword dancer from the Orientalist period is “Sword Dancer,” by Austrian artist Rudolf Ernst.

“Sabre Dance in a Cafe” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1876
Israeli dancer Rahlo Jammele, late 1800s
“Sword Dancer” by Rudolf Ernst, late 1800s

Orientalism is fascinating but also problematic, in that much of the imagery and writing on “the East” comes from a Western perspective that romanticizes and stereotypes various cultures in ways that support prejudices and cast people of these cultures as “other.” Sadly, this tendency to “other-ise” Eastern cultures, while not as overt and stereotypical as in the 19th century, continues today. This raises questions about whether Western cultures embracing, adopting, and adapting traditional dance forms and costuming from the Middle East, Africa, India, and other cultures is cultural appropriation. As a belly dancer myself (who is a white woman born in the United States), I struggle with these questions at times. I love belly dance, particularly American Tribal Style (ATS) dance, a style that was created in San Francisco in the 1980s as a fusion of many traditions from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Spain, Africa, and India and strongly influenced by Sicilian-American dancer Jamila Salimpour, who was born in New York and lived in San Francisco. Salimpour, who was influenced by her father’s memories of living in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia while he was in the Sicilian navy, was largely responsible for making belly dance popular in the United States in the 1970s and beyond. She also codified and named many traditional steps and movements, allowing belly dance to be taught as an art form. I often feel there is a fine line between appropriation and appreciation, and I hope that I appropriately demonstrate my respect for the cultures that influence my dance, but I recognize that there are widely varying perspectives on this.

Dancer Jamila Salimpour, 1967

All that being said, what images and feelings do the use of blades in belly dance evoke? One could argue that incorporating a sword, a symbol of masculinity (the penis, battle, aggression) presents either a merging of or a conflict between (depending on one’s perspective) masculine and feminine energies. One must also recognize that belly dance, with or without the use of swords, is often associated with sensuality (relating to or consisting of the gratification of the senses, often used in a sexual context but also referring to pleasure derived from various senses in a non-sexual context). I have sometimes wondered if subconsciously, the use of a saber by a belly dancer conjures up images of overt sexuality–a woman (as the majority of belly dancers are women) manipulating a phallus. Although the majority of the belly dancers I know, including myself, embrace sensuality (including both non-sexual and sexual elements) in dance, most of us don’t intend our performances to be overtly sexual. We are typically not aiming to simulate sexual acts or invite male audience members to see us as purely sexual objects. (These issues become further complicated by the acknowledgement that gender is non-binary, a concept that is just beginning to gain some acceptance in American culture, but that is a larger discussion for another time.)

Belly dancers using swords may also be seen as powerful and heroic women–female warriors who have strength and bravery. Another association may be danger: There is a long history of women, particularly sensual or seductive women, being seen as femme fatales, sirens, witches, and enchantresses who may destroy or seduce men. In fact, this association has tragically led to many laws and customs that support the demonization of and criminalization of women. For instance, in some cultures, women who have sex outside of marriage, even in cases of rape, are punished (sometimes by death), whereas the men involved in these acts may not be punished.

Belly dance is not the only form of dance to incorporate swords. There is a long tradition of the use of sabers in dance, typically by men as solo dancers or in groups in mock battle. These dances have been a part of the history of numerous cultures around the world. However, I will not get into detail on these other forms of dance in this post.

To sum up, I have had a lot of deep and complicated thoughts about violence, weapons, dance, and culture running through my mind lately. Dance (and recently, learning how to use a blade in my dance) has been a healing practice for me that helps me deal with the stresses of my job and the anxieties of living in an often violent and unfair world. I try to bring reverence and respect for the cultures that form the foundation of the dance forms I enjoy, as well as for my teachers and fellow dancers (including those who went before me and with whom I have not personally studied, such as Jamila Salimpour and many others). I try to examine my own prejudices and associations around dance and the cultures from which I am borrowing. I also strive to examine my views on violence and my own violent impulses. Mostly, I aim to continue to learn and grow as both a dancer and a person as I ponder these questions.